News & Opinion

Pros give fans a peek inside the bubble

If we learned one thing at last fall’s Ryder Cup, it’s that in the head-to-head format, PGA Tour players are no match for their European Tour counterparts – at least in the current professional golf climate

If we learned one thing at last fall’s Ryder Cup, it’s that in the head-to-head format, PGA Tour players are no match for their European Tour counterparts – at least in the current professional golf climate. As if the Europeans weren’t engaging enough in their defeat of the Americans at Le Golf National near Paris, they became that much more likable on social media in the aftermath.

On Twitter, @RyderCupEurope tweeted a spoof of teammates Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari in bed together on the morning after the Ryder Cup win. A few months later, the European Tour posted to Twitter a parody of several top-tier players discussing “viral video content” for the following year.

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England’s Eddie Pepperell offers his followers an unvarnished view of life on tour.

All of this served to create more connection points between European Tour players and fans, and to show that the tour has a sense of humor. The Europeans simply are more open than the American players, and perhaps none more so than Eddie Pepperell, a 28-year-old Englishman and two-time European Tour winner.

Pepperell was a key part of that European Tour sketch, but he does something else that’s growing in popularity among professional athletes: He blogs.

Pepperell pulls no punches on his personal forum. In a detailed recap of his tie for third at last month’s Players Championship, he opened with this line: “I hadn’t snapped a club all year until the Tuesday of Sawgrass during a practice round.” Pepperell goes on to describe the “act of petulance, borne out of frustration” while also taking a good-natured jab at European Tour colleague Rory McIlroy.

The blog is Pepperell completely unfiltered – and with unfiltered language, occasionally of the four-letter variety – which used to be something we never got from professional athletes. Few give us the stream-of-consciousness window into their personal lives that Pepperell provides – and that also may change for the rising European Tour star as he gains popularity – but taking a direct line to fans is becoming more common among athletes.

Golf, perhaps more than other sports, lends itself well to player-fan communication, given the proximity of fans to players. Though many golfers are active on social media, fans want to interact with their favorite players on a deeper level. Social media is only part of the equation. When athletes use outlets such as personal blogs or websites, it allows them, for better or worse, to tell their stories on their own terms.

In many cases, that allows them to control the message. Depending on the message, that can be a positive or a negative experience. It always will be one-sided.

The Players’ Tribune, a media company founded by former Yankees star Derek Jeter, gives professional athletes a platform to address fans in their own words. Since 2014, athletes from virtually all sports have penned columns for the site that touch on everything from mental and physical setbacks to race issues to performance and personal growth.

Justin Thomas, Morgan Hoffmann, Sergio Garcia and Brittany Lincicome are among the golfers to have published pieces on the site. Hoffmann used it to reveal his diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. Thomas and Garcia reflect on the big events of their respective careers. Lincicome discussed her 2018 start in the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship.

None was controversial, and in all four cases, players answered the hard questions without being asked directly (kudos to them, particularly Hoffmann, for that).

When athletes become more human, fans become more connected. In that way, opening up is a smart choice to build a brand. That’s not to say that the sport doesn’t benefit.

Player blogging offers a window into what it’s really like at the next level. It can even speak to the beauty of how sport reflects life. That was Madeleine Sheils’ parting gift to professional golf.

Sheils played four years on the Symetra Tour, winning once, in 2015, before setting out as a rookie on the LPGA tour in 2017. Sheils made eight cuts in 24 LPGA starts over the next two seasons, but didn’t finish high enough at last fall’s LPGA Q-Series to retain her card. Faced with a return to the Symetra Tour, Sheils decided in January to step away.

She chronicled it in a brutally honest post on her personal blog – one that in no way sugar-coated the hard road that professional athletes walk.

“I feel both pride and dismay to be here: proud to have worked my way up to this vantage point but discouraged to recognize the gap that remains between myself and the next tier of players,” Sheils wrote.

It’s a viewpoint that reached well beyond golf fans, and an honest take that prospective athletes need to hear. Therein lies the appeal of this new form of player-to-fan communication. Even if the message is controlled, it sheds new light on what goes on behind the curtain of professional sports – the part that until recently, has remained unseen.

Julie Williams covers amateur golf for AmateurGolf.com. She is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: hello@beyondthesundaydriver.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules